BlackBerry Z10 (AT&T) review

The first BlackBerry 10 handset, the Z10 is a thoroughly modern, high-quality smartphone with a strong focus on messaging, but a lack of popular apps and media could hold it back.
Photo of BlackBerry Z10 (AT&T)

The BlackBerry Z10 is a thoroughly modern smartphone with a thoroughly modern mobile OS. Built well from high-quality materials, it has an strong focus on messaging. It offers better video support than Windows Phone 8, better messaging than Android, and more elegant graphics than Apple’s iOS.

Somehow, though, it doesn’t all quite come together as a compelling consumer alternative to market leaders like the Apple iPhone 5, HTC One, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. As just another nice black slab, the Z10′s physical design is so understated that it tends to fade into the background, and while the OS has plenty of interesting ideas, it can’t overcome how far behind it is in terms of third-party app support. I’d have been more profoundly moved if the first BlackBerry 10 phone was the BlackBerry Q10, with one of the spectacular hardware keyboards BlackBerry is famous for. There are no flagship smartphones with full QWERTY keyboards any more, despite the fact that physical keys are still much easier to type on than virtual ones.

Hardware and Keyboard
The BlackBerry Z10 is a medium size, rounded black slab. Although it’s a high-quality build all around, it’s got a generic look. The phone is mostly very high-quality plastic with a rubbery finish on the back and smooth black polycarbonate bumpers on the top and bottom. At 5.1 by 2.6 by .35 inches (HWD) and 4.8 ounces, it fits right into the middle of popular smartphone sizes, just a bit bigger than the iPhone 5. I found it very comfortable to use in one hand.

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As with most slab-style phones, the front is dominated by the 4.2-inch 1,280-by-768 LCD. At 356 pixels per inch, the display is higher density than both the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III, although it isn’t the tightest screen around. (That’s the HTC Droid DNA at 443 ppi.) There’s a Power button on the top, volume rockers with a hardware Mute button on one side, and micro USB and micro HDMI ports on the other. Turn on the Z10 on and you’ll see a sharp LCD with rich blacks, but not stunning brightness.

Peel off the NFC-enabled back panel to find a long, narrow 1800mAh battery and a microSD card slot that supports up to 64GB cards without a problem. The 8-megapixel camera lens sits on the back left corner.

BlackBerry is very proud of its software keyboard, calling it the best in the business. The innovation here is to space the four rows of keys further apart vertically than typical for more accurate typing, along with a very aggressive autocorrect system that learns from your common word sequences. Possible autocorrects and shortcuts float above individual keys as you type. The keyboard takes up less screen real estate than Windows Phone and some Android keyboards, and the keys are nice and wide. I found it more accurate than the iOS and Windows Phone keyboards over long-term use. But make no mistake, it’s still a software keyboard, and longtime BlackBerry fans will miss their clicky, tactile buttons.

OS and Performance
The Z10 runs the brand-new BlackBerry OS 10, which bears no resemblance to the BB operating system of old; it’s much more like the OS on the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. The company says 100,000 BlackBerry 10 apps will be available when the phone launches in the U.S., so while the device is incompatible with apps for older phones, BlackBerry has done a solid job of building up a launch library for the new platform.

The key idea in BlackBerry OS 10 is “flow.” There’s no system-wide Back button; you’re always moving forward. The BB10 experience pivots around a page of your eight most recently used, minimized apps, called the Active Frame. Swipe left to go to the BlackBerry Hub, or the universal inbox; swipe right to view a very iPhone-like set of app icon pages. If you’re doing something and you want to do something else, you swipe up, minimizing your app, to return to the central screen where it’s easy to jump into another app.

Swipe, flip, swipe: Just like with the good old Palm WebOS, you work up a real rhythm here. BlackBerry OS 10 isn’t customizable like Android or Windows Phone, but to some extent it customizes itself: Those eight most recently used apps can update their pages as new information comes in, potentially making them a little like Android’s widgets or Windows Phone’s Live Tiles. You can’t move them around, though: They’re just the most recent ones you’ve used.

For a much deeper dive into the new OS, including third-party apps, check out our full review of BlackBerry 10.

Built around a 1.5GHz, dual-core Qualcomm processor and 2GB of RAM, the Z10 doesn’t have any performance problems even with large, heavy apps like Bard’s Tale or playing 1080p videos on a larger screen via an HDMI cable. The Z10 notched a 2,452 on Browsermark (which measures general browser performance) and 2198.4ms on Sunspider (which measures Javascript performance.) Browsermark results were on par with dual-core Android 4.0 phones like the HTC One SV, while the Sunspider results were slightly slower than competing Android phones, but not so much that you’d notice in typical use. Let’s note, though, that the sheer horsepower here is a definite notch behind the new Snapdragon 600 chips we’ll soon see in the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

Call Quality, Networking, and Battery
You’d expect a BlackBerry to excel in the voice department, and in this case you’d be right. In my tests, the Z10′s earpiece delivered round, warm voice tones at moderate to high volume. The speakerphone was downright excellent—unusually clear and loud enough for most any situation. Transmissions from both a noisy street scene and a loud Starbucks blanked out the background noise very well. A call from the speakerphone let through a little bit of background noise, but the voice was fully forward and very well rounded. The Z10 had no problem connecting to a Plantronics Voyager Legend headset for voice, music, video, and voice dialing. 

Voice dictation is everywhere—it’s built into the OS—and it’s moderately accurate, but not perfect. You can dictate about 24 seconds at a time, spelling out punctuation. Errors I encountered included “BlackBerry can” for “BlackBerry 10″ and “Sasha see can” for “Sascha Segan.” That puts voice control accuracy at around Windows Phone’s level and below Android’s.

I used the Z10 on AT&T’s LTE network and got decent speeds of 12-13Mbps down and 3-5Mbps up in our midtown Manhattan offices. Unfortunately, there’s no way to turn off LTE if you’re in a non-LTE area, which burns battery. I mention this because AT&T disabled that switch; you can turn off LTE on the T-Mobile model! The phone also supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, along with GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC. You can send files to another BlackBerry via NFC, as well as read NFC tags.

The 1800mAh battery won’t satisfy heavy users, so it’s a good thing it’s removable and that it fills up quickly. I was able to move from almost no charge to 100 percent in three hours. I got 7 hours, 30 minutes of talk time and 3 hours, 7 minutes of LTE video streaming, neither of which are great results. A $49.99 battery/charger bundle comes with a second battery, and can charge both your phone and the second battery at the same time.

Camera and Video
You get 16GB of onboard storage, along with that memory card slot, and an 8-megapixel main camera with a surprisingly bright flash, and a front-facing 2-megapixel camera with 720p video recording. There’s no hardware Camera button, but you can get there directly from the lock screen by holding down a camera icon. The camera app includes image stabilization, Burst mode, and four scene modes: Action, Night, Beach, and Whiteboard, which brightens contrast on images with white backgrounds.

The flashiest camera feature, though, is TimeShift, which lets you fix group photos so everyone’s eyes are open. It’s a tour de force in in-camera image processing: It grabs a bunch of shots as a burst, detects the faces, and then lets you paste in different faces from different shots so everyone looks their best. I’d love to see this as the first of several computational photography options, like the innovative lens applets available for Windows Phones, but the OS doesn’t seem to be extensible beyond this.

Both cameras capture razor-sharp images in good light. Low-light images without flash taken with the main camera have dramatic shadows and are maybe a touch soft, but weren’t bad in my tests. Low-light images taken with the front camera were blurry and noisy, though, with the virtual ISO pushing up all the way to 3200 and the shutter speed cutting as far down as 1/5 of a second. The flash illuminated objects clearly about 10 feet away with a bright white light.

The phone captures 1080p video with its rear camera and 720p footage with its front camera. Interestingly, recording 1080p video requires a Class 4 memory card, and the 8GB card bundled with my test phone was too slow. I recommend the Sandisk Mobile Ultra MicroSD series instead. As you’d expect from a flagship phone, recording 30 frame-per-second videos indoor and out was not a problem, although the image stabilization didn’t cure my hand wobble at all, and some videos had an irritating pulsing effect. The Nokia Lumia 920′s optical image stabilization does a better job.

Video playback is top notch. The phone handled all of our test video formats including MP4, DivX, Xvid and WMV at resolutions up to 1080p. I rented the movie Catfish for $2.99 from the onboard BlackBerry World store and it was sharp and clear both on the phone’s screen and a 60-inch Samsung TV. Plug in a micro HDMI cable, and the entire interface mirrors over to a TV. You can also transmit wirelessly to a TV via DLNA.

Conclusions
The BlackBerry Z10 is a handsome phone running a brand new OS. So why should you buy it instead of an Android, Apple, or Microsoft phone? That’s what I’m struggling with.

The corporate factor definitely still plays a role. BlackBerry Balance and BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10 make for a killer work-phone package, that’s secure and manageable but still fun and cool. IT managers who want to stick with BlackBerry but have been getting sneers from users will find much to like here.

But for consumers, the Z10 doesn’t quite jump the threshold. Google and Apple both have massive app and media libraries. Android and Windows Phone devices are more configurable. Apple’s phones have a ton of accessories and easily accessible, in-person support. And at $199.99 with a two-year contract, the Z10 is competing against the flagship phones of all of these other lines.

BlackBerry 10′s greatest strengths come in messaging, which is why I’m excited for the forthcoming QWERTY-equipped BlackBerry Q10. BlackBerry 10 makes it very easy to zip between emails with its convenient Hub, it has excellent BBM voice and video chat, and its Peek feature which lets you see your inbox from everywhere. What does that pair best with? A killer hardware keyboard. The Z10 isn’t a bad phone at all, but it’s not good enough to reignite a revolution.

Specifications
Service Provider AT&T
Screen Details 1280-by-768 LCD touchscreen
Battery Life (As Tested) 10 hours 54 minutes
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n
Operating System as Tested BlackBerry OS
Megapixels 8 MP
Physical Keyboard No
Bluetooth Yes
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS, LTE
Camera Yes
High-Speed Data EDGE, LTE, HSPA+ 21
Camera Flash Yes
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700
microSD Slot Yes
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
GPS Yes
Screen Size 4.2 inches
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 16 GB
Form Factor Candy Bar

Verdict
The first BlackBerry 10 handset, the Z10 is a thoroughly modern, high-quality smartphone with a strong focus on messaging, but a lack of popular apps and media could hold it back.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc